Tuesday, December 22, 2009

In space, no on can hear... a foghorn?

Resisting the temptation to make some convoluted allusion to Ray Bradbury's famous short story, I share with you good readers this particularly interesting bit of planetary science. It's accepted fact at this point that Saturn's moon, Titan, has abundant liquid on its surface in the form of methane or ethane seas or lakes. But now researchers have teased out of data indications that fog forms regularly on this hazy, shrouded world:
PASADENA, Calif. - Saturn's largest moon, Titan, looks to be the only place in the solar system - aside from our home planet, Earth - with copious quantities of liquid (largely, liquid methane and ethane) sitting on its surface. According to planetary astronomer Mike Brown of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Earth and Titan share yet another feature, which is inextricably linked with that surface liquid: common fog.

The presence of fog provides the first direct evidence for the exchange of material between the surface and the atmosphere, and thus of an active hydrological cycle, which previously had only been known to exist on Earth.

In a talk to be delivered December 18 at the American Geophysical Union's 2009 Fall Meeting in San Francisco, Brown, the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor and professor of planetary astronomy, details evidence that Titan's south pole is spotted "more or less everywhere" with puddles of methane that give rise to sporadic layers of fog. (Technically, fog is just a cloud or bank of clouds that touch the ground).

This discovery in and of itself is interesting, but opens the floor to larger questions. Titan's weather patterns are so different than those of Earth, the meteorological forces so alien, that fog cannot form the same way it does here.
"Fog - or clouds, or dew, or condensation in general - can form whenever air reaches about 100 percent humidity," Brown says. "There are two ways to get there. The first is obvious: add water (on Earth) or methane (on Titan) to the surrounding air. The second is much more common: make the air colder so it can hold less water (or liquid methane), and all of that excess needs to condense."

This, he explains, is the same process that causes water droplets to form on the outside of a cool glass.

On Earth, this is the most common method of making fog, Brown says. "That fog you often see at sunrise hugging the ground is caused by ground-level air cooling overnight, to the point where it cannot hang onto its water. As the sun rises and the air heats, the fog goes away."

Similarly, fog can form when wet air passes over cold ground; as the air cools, the water condenses. And mountain fog occurs when air gets pushed up the side of a mountain and cools, causing the water to condense.

However, none of these mechanisms work on Titan.

It will be interesting to see what further revelations arise from this research. Check out the entire release at the Caltech website.

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